Memo to TV academy: How to fix Emmy’s longform categories

The TV academy has been under fire over its shifting eligibility requirements for miniseries.


Emmy rules used to require a program to tell a self-contained story to be eligible in the longform categories and any program with a “created by” credit (which usually indicates a continuing series) was disqualified.

Last year the academy made exceptions to both of those rules with the inclusions of “Downton Abbey” and “Luther,” and this year they further stretched the boundaries of longform programming by including the anthology series “American Horror Story,” which returns for a second season this fall.

The problem with the current eligibility standards is their subjectivity. Having made exceptions to the rules, the academy now makes case-by-case determinations and the rules are not equally applied.

Why were ABC’s canceled series “Missing” and “The River” eligible to enter as minis this year, but HBO’s axed series “Luck” wasn’t? Why was last year’s first season of “Luther” — which had six episodes — allowed to compete as a mini but the first season of “The Walking Dead” — which also had six episodes — not? 

The TV academy should determine category placement by the number of episodes aired: seven or more automatically qualifies as a drama, while six episodes or less means miniseries. Gone would be the concerns over credits and hair-splitting decisions about what qualifies as a complete story.

Such a rule would immediately eliminate “American Horror Story,” “Missing,” and “The River” from longform eligibility, while allowing continuing dramas “Luther,” “Sherlock,” and “The Hour” to remain in this race.

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This change would have another significant consequence as self-contained epics like “John Adams,” “Bleak House,” and “Band of Brothers” would have to compete as dramas. Is it fair to pit those finite productions against open-ended programs? How would Emmy-winning “John Adams” stars Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney have fared against that year’s Drama Actor and Drama Actress winners, Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad“) and Glenn Close (“Damages“)?

Facing such a challenging playing field might discourage producers and networks from undertaking ambitious projects, or at the very least cause them to be packaged differently. For example, HBO might have aired its war epic “The Pacific” in five two-hour segments instead of 10 hour-long episodes in order to qualify for the longform categories.

However, another possible consequence — one that might enhance the television landscape as a whole — might be a rise of continuing dramas with shorter season orders.

We’re already seeing evidence of this as a result of the Emmys’ newly relaxed eligibility requirements. USA’s “Political Animals” was promoted as a “limited series” and is likely to position itself as a miniseries for next year’s Emmys.

The relatively reduced cost and more modest time commitment may encourage greater creative risks from networks and producers and attract talent who might not otherwise invest time in series television.

And along with the reduced risk comes the potential for great reward: a short series that succeeds can subsequently be expanded. There is already precedent for this.  “Battlestar Galactica,” “The 4400,” and “The Starter Wife” all began with shorter, miniseries-qualifying runs, in addition to the aforementioned “Walking Dead,” which debuted with a six-episode season.

The BAFTA TV Awards distinguish between single dramas (a self-contained film), miniseries (two to five episodes), drama series (six to 19 episodes), and soap/continuing dramas (20 episodes or more). With so many British programs currently competing for top Emmys, it’s time Emmy followed Britain’s lead in honoring them.

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